Western moves facilities to the waterfront in anticipation of redevelopment of the site
BBJ PHOTO/VINCENT AIOSA
The possibility of Western Washington University expanding its campus to the Bellingham waterfront has been a near constant in the discussions concerning the redevelopment the former Georgia-Pacific site.
After several years of talk and speculation, that possibility has finally become a reality. Western is in the process of signing a lease with the Port of Bellingham that will relocate several departments to the former port headquarters at 625 CornwallAve. in mid-August, a move to establish the university’s presence on the waterfront before redevelopment begins.
“It’s important for the public to see what its like for Western to be there,” said Bob Frazier, Western’s vice president for external affairs.
The two-year lease for the facility will enable some offices of Huxley College of the Environment, the College of Science and Technology, Fairhaven College and the Department of External Affairs to test the waters of having the university at the site.
But as Western makes an effort to establish itself on the waterfront, some question whether having a tenant that would not pay property taxes on prime real estate is a good idea. Dr. Ian Thompson, chief of medical staff for radiation-oncology at St. Joseph Hospital and president-elect for the St. Joseph Hospital Foundation, said the university would benefit from the location, but he sees little other advantage to having Western on the waterfront.
“Moving part of the campus down to the water just because it’s a good environment is questionable,” Thompson said. “I would be happy for Western to be there if they pay the same property taxes everybody else would. I’m just being frugal.”
As the G-P pulp mill is dismantled and plans for cleanup of the remaining toxic environment take shape, Western is identifying its own reasons for making the move to the waterfront. The university’s administration has identified a waterfront presence as a conduit to more interaction with the greater Bellingham community and a way to give Western’s programs national and international attention. The area the university is looking at contains several buildings, the main being the former 43,000-square-foot board mill, Frazier said. Western is looking at adding three stories to the two-story building at a cost of nearly $10 million, making the facility approximately 100,000 square feet. Four silos on the site may also be reused, as well as bricks from buildings that are demolished to mend the outside walls of the board mill.
“It’s a recycle-reuse project,” said Lydia Bennett, Port of Bellingham real estate director.
Although nothing is set in stone, the move of facilities in August demonstrates more than just an interest in the potential for a waterfront campus.
“They’re the first one who sticks their toe in the water and says it’s really cold but they’re going to jump in there anyhow,” Bennett said.
That jump might be more of a push — Western’s current campus is nearing its capacity. The full-time equivalent student enrollment was 11,754.5 in 2005-2006 with a planned cap of 12,500 by 2013. A new building will add 700 classroom seats and new facilities for university programs in 2008, but Western’s campus is sandwiched by Sehome Arboretum and existing neighborhoods, giving it little room to grow. Frazier said there was talk years ago about expanding the university into the Happy Valley neighborhood to the south of the current campus, but that plan was met by fierce opposition from the city and residents.
Other universities have expanded through branches in locations far away from main campus, but Frazier said Western has no inclination to do the same.
“It needs to be the same university and not have multiple campuses,” he said.
The reason is feasibility. Satellite campuses need separate administrative staffs to run, but a waterfront facility would be close enough to Western’s main campus to not necessitate a separate staff, Frazier said.
But Thompson said he thinks the main advantage for Western to be on the waterfront is prestige, which is not a good enough reason to justify taking away prime real estate and the tax revenue another tenant would generate.
He said his vision for the waterfront would be similar to the refurbishing of YaleTown in Vancouver, British Columbia. The city jump started the redevelopment of the area that was filled with industrial warehouses through the 1986 international exposition Expo 86. Now the old warehouses are a trendy spot for nightlife and business.
BBJ PHOTO/VINCENT AIOSA
But Western would not be getting a free ride on the waterfront. If everything goes as planned, Port of Bellingham Communications Manager Carolyn Casey said the port and city will negotiate a fee from the university in lieu of property taxes. The port will pay for the environmental cleanup, the city for the infrastructure of roads, sidewalks and utilities, and Casey said the fee would be a way to recoup the costs of those investments.
“The negotiations are in the beginning state, and I wouldn’t put a dollar amount on it,” she said.
Western’s fee would be a drop in the barrel compared to its overall value to the site, Casey said. But assessing Western’s value to the waterfront is more abstract than simply looking at the numbers.
An economic impact study would not reveal Western’s value to the site, said Hart Hodges, the director of Western’s Center for Economic and Business Research. In fact, Hodges said an impact study would most likely show Western should not go to the waterfront.
“Lots of times, an impact analysis is not the tool to push the conversation we really want to be having,” he said.
In the conversation that includes Western in the waterfront, proponents argue the university would be not only an anchor tenant, but a pioneer that could attract people and businesses to the development.
“Universities have proven to be such an incentive for investment and something that ignites an entire project,” Casey said.
Bennett said any new tenant on the waterfront would have to be an established entity, and the port and city would offer incentives to bring them to the site. Having Western as a pioneer tenant for the waterfront is a boon for the redevelopment, she said.
“They’re saving us probably five years in time to try to woo the right user,” Bennett said.
Thompson said if the university’s presence would promote a business park environment, then he could see value to having Western on the waterfront.
Although a business park per se is not in the plans, a business incubator is. The College of Sciences and Technology is working with the Technology Alliance Group (TAG), the port and the city to develop a facility in Western’s waterfront campus that would support the development of technology-based area businesses.
“This is something not only Western doesn’t have, but the area doesn’t have,” said Arlen Norman, dean of the College of Sciences and Technology and TAG board member.
The alliance, called the Consortium for Technological Innovation and Development (CTID), will have offices in Western’s waterfront facility this fall. Norman said the consortium would be beneficial to both the university and local businesses.
“The incubator is only a part of what this consortium could be,” he said.
Norman said CTID could be part of a larger Washington network, sharing resources with other similar facilities in Vancouver, Seattle, Spokane and the Tri Cities. It would provide faculty and students with exposure to local businesses while at the same time providing resources to those businesses.
But the value of Western on the waterfront may also be in the other types of business the campus attracts. Frazier said Western’s presence would drive the creation of condos, apartments, grocery stores and other businesses not only for students, but for families that may come to visit, for when the university hosts conferences and for the constant presence of faculty and staff at the facility.
“It’s all different points of traffic,” Frazier said. “Universities drive traffic, and traffic drives jobs.”
Western also has the potential to draw different, larger-scale tenants. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has expressed interest in the possibility of relocating its Pacific fleet to Bellingham. Casey said part of NOAA’s attraction is the possibility that Huxley College might be at the waterfront facility. Currently, NOAA is based on Lake Union in Seattle, but its piers were destroyed in a fire last year and have yet to be repaired, and its lease expires in 2010.
BBJ PHOTO/VINCENT AIOSA
A desirable tenant
Casey said the port has talked with other communities that have done similar projects and spent thousands of dollars just to attract a university tenant. She said Bellingham is in the enviable position of having a university not only willing, but pushing for a presence on the redevelopment site. She finds it odd that some in the community fail to see the value Western could bring to the project.
“One of the things I find we’re all guilty of in Bellingham is thinking we’re doing something that nobody’s done before,” Casey said. “This isn’t something new that we’re doing.”
Casey references a book titled “The University as Urban Developer,” which gives more than 10 case studies of universities being key to revitalization projects. One project happened in Tacoma in the 1990s when the University of Washington located a branch campus in the city’s deteriorating downtown. Tacoma Community and Economic Development Director Ryan Petty said the decision to include the university in Tacoma’s downtown was one of the key decisions in the city’s economic revival.
“It brought life to part of the city that was dormant and stimulated the resurgence of the city of Tacoma,” Petty said.
The area surrounding the branch campus was once full of derelict warehouses, but now has nearly half of Tacoma’s downtown businesses.
“That’s what kind of impact it has,” Petty said.
But Bellingham is not Tacoma, and while models of renovation projects are scattered across the nation, each one has different qualities. Bellingham’s waterfront is garnering much attention not only within the city, but nationally. At nearly every turn there is support for Western’s presence. The state Legislature committed $1 million in Western’s operating budget for planning and development of the university’s possible move to the waterfront.
“People in Bellingham have to open their eyes to what is happening elsewhere and shape it to how we want it here,” Bennett said.
There’s no question the former pulp mill will be redeveloped, but what shape it will ultimately take is only slowly forming while G-P makes its exit. Western’s move to the former port headquarters is just one piece of a puzzle that no one knows the final configuration.